Sri Lanka: Trains, Tea, and Elephants

We had booked our trip to Sri Lanka long in advance of moving to Kuala Lumpur. This meant, thankfully, that we have always had a holiday to look forward to.

As it happens, we felt in great need of a holiday when  the day finally arrived and we have tried to embrace the relaxation as much as possible whilst we have been here.

We left early on the Saturday morning whilst Nicki attempted to nurse me from my pathetic bout of man flu (an obligatory addition to any half term holiday) and landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, before lunch.

It had been decided that we were going to leave Colombo as soon as we arrived in order to fully embrace the short week we had ahead of us.

We got an Uber from the airport to Maradana Station to board the train towards Galle on the south of coast. We were recommended Maradana as a station before any stations in Colombo central as it offers greater opportunity for seats than the busier central stations. Unfortunately, we were 3 hours early for the 2.15pm train and decided to make our own way south via the less comfortable public bus.

A tuk-tuk took us to Maharagama bus station, close to the Southbound highway leading to Galle. From there we joined a very orderly queue (we are always comparing queue etiquette to China – so everywhere else wins). We were unable to board the first bus so were forced to wait another half and hour for the next bus to arrive. In the meantime the skies opened and attempted to soak us. Luckily, a local young lady in the queue for the bus came back down the line with an umbrella and shared her shelter with us. We tried to share our gratitude with her despite her lack of English. She saved us a very uncomfortable journey once we eventually boarded the next bus.

The bus stop is close the the Dutch colonial fort in Galle, where we would spend the next evening and morning. The contrast between the inside and outside of the fort is substantial. Within, you could be forgiven for believing you are wondering the streets of a european coastal town, whereas you can look out from the walls onto a vibrant and colourful city reminiscent of India.

DSCF4368

We checked into the quaint Sirene Galle Fort Hotel before heading on an evening walk along the fort walls. Supposedly the fort walls were assembled by Portuguese and Dutch colonialists, and you can tell the difference between the two by the width of the walls.

DSCF4356

DSCF4364The fort is full of boutique shops, and romantic restaurants.  It doesn’t take long to walk around it, but there was still enough to make us feel a longer stay would be welcomed.

We ended up eating at the Pedlar’s Inn Cafe as we were recommended it by a local and enjoyed the prospect of eating outside on the cobbled streets of the Unesco site.  It was here that we were first introduced to Sri Lankan cuisine, with an abundance of curries served with rice and poppadoms. Enough for one man overcoming his flu.

DSCF4376

We went to bed early that night because we were due to be woken up at 5am for one of the highlights of our trip: Blue Whale Watching. However, when we got back onto WiFi, we found out that the choppy seas and weather forecast had forced the boats to cease their plans for the morning. Despite our disappointment we endeavoured to take advantage of the day on land instead.

DSCF4393

After a nice lie in (by 5am comparisons), we had breakfast and then negotiated a tuktuk to take us to the beach of Mirissa via a couple of locations for 2000 rupees (about a tenner) – it is easier to negotiate prices in the low season.

DSCF4420

The tuktuk driver took us along the south coast and stopped off at a turtle hospital, where several people nurse turtles back to health after fishing accidents and protect turtle eggs from poachers. it was great to see a variety of different turtles, even if some of them were missing parts of their shell or a limb. One of the men wanted me to carry one of the turtles to feel how heavy it was. I decided that the turtle probably didn’t want to be taken out of the water and carried by me, so I declined. Still, I did hold a new-born when it was handed to me…and enjoyed it.

DCIM100GOPRO

DSCF4415We then headed closer towards Mirissa and pulled over close to a set of men pretending to fish on stilts (a famous fishing technique in Sri Lanka). These men weren’t fishing at all but were openly posing so that tourists could photograph them for money. We declined their offer to pay them for a photograph. Instead we got back in the tuktuk and photographed some authentic fishermen as we drove along the road.

DSCF4424

Upon arrival in Mirissa we quickly moved along the delicious beach and became very wary (but not wary enough to apply suncream) of the deadly sea breeze that was sure to burn us in the heat. We walked towards Rock Island just off the beach and went beyond it for some lunch with a view.

DSCF4430

DSCF4449

This was always our intention with Mirissa, and we headed towards out hotel just beyond Tangelle for our evening. Our hotel was a little more expensive than our usual budget but we decided to stay in a peaceful, luxurious location for a couple of nights. We found that we had the beach to ourselves for a couple of nights with amazing food. There may not be a lot to report from the day and two nights we spent there, but there was lots of recuperation.

DSCF4465

DSCF4493

DSCF4467

DSCF4485

DSCF4472We left at 4:30am on our second morning on a two hour three-wheeler trip to the Udawalawe National Park for our elephant safari. We decided on this Safari over the busier Yala National park because it is…less busy.

The night soon became day as we came to the entrance. Here a few jeep owners were waiting for us and began negotiating prices to provide us with their service. It was very clear that this is a hard time to be in the Sri Lankan tourist industry, as the jeeps far outnumbered the tourists. So much so that we ended up with a 8-seater jeep to ourselves for the half day safari. Note: contrary the Lonely Planet, admission tickets for the National Park are 3500rupees per foreigner (about $20).

DSCF4527

It was still dawn when we entered the park. We meandered along the dirt and mud tracks in pursuit of some wildlife. It wasn’t long before we saw scores of wild buffalo bathing in a lake, a jackal run across the track, several crocodiles along the bank, and a few rare birds. I was actually quite surprised that so many of these creatures live in peaceful proximity to each other.

DSCF4515

We did not expect to see a leopard (although we hoped), but we had expected to see elephants. 2 hours into our safari we feared that we were going to leave without seeing more than the one we saw ambling in a bush.

Suddenly, around 9am, a whole family appeared to be bathing in a lake. The jeep got as close possible without disturbing them and we were able to see the group working together to bathe and drink.

20171017_113616

20171017_163631

DSCF4574DSCF4566DSCF4545

DSCF4537

DSCF4614From this point we could hardly move without seeing a group of elephants. They appeared out of nowhere and had no regard for us as observers. At one point they got a little too close to the jeep for our comfort. Mission had been accomplished and we had seen dozens of elephants in the wild.

We then took a car for an air-conditioned ride to our next stop: Ella. We spent a couple of nights in Ella and left with adoration for the small hilly village. Ella is clearly a backpackers hotspot and it’s clear to see why. It has a strip of trendy cafes, boutique craft shops and a general laid back atmosphere. We found ourselves embracing the lethargy here in a bar called ‘Chill’, where we guiltlessly spent a whole boozy afternoon.

One more outdoorsy spot in Ella is the short hike to ‘Little Adam’s Peak’ where you can amble through tea fields and climb towards a summit looking down upon more. It was a sweaty climb despite our acclimatisation to the Malaysian climate.

DSCF4621

DSCF4627

However, Ella was definitely more about relaxing and enjoying some food with our beer. I would love to say that we experienced all that this little village had to offer, but we didn’t. Instead we indulged ourselves in its vibes.

DSCF4645

My personal highlight from our trip to Sri Lanka (elephants aside), was the train journey between Ella and Nuwara Eliya. We have reassured ourselves that even though we have had lots of train experiences recently, we are not going to label ourselves as train enthusiasts just yet.

The train between Ella and Nuwara Eliya is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. I would be prepared to suggest that the views are comparable to any of the amazing sights we saw on the Trans-Siberian.

DSCF4655

DSCF4718

20171019_124149

I spent much of the journey sitting out of the open door of our carriage, allowing my legs to swing below, whilst Nicki was enjoying the same view from her seat. The train wove its way through the tea fields, around hills and climbed into the mist of the mountainside. I was sure I could smell the tea, but I might just have wanted to. I am unable to write as poetically as the views warrant, so I will just leave a few photos.

DSCF4706

DSCF4702

DSCF4700

DSCF4691

DSCF4669We travelled 68km on our 3-hour journey. At some points the train was limited to 15km/hour. It is astonishing to think we regularly travelled by train between Shanghai and Ningbo in China at speeds exceeding 300km/ hour. The speed was limited, but the experience was not.

DSCF4672Nuwara Eliya is known as ‘Little England’ because of its links to our colonial past. The buildings could easily have come from 19th century England and the Victoria Park certainly resembled what we might see in the UK. The most striking resemblance came in the weather though. Unlike anywhere else we had been in Sri Lanka, Nuwara Eliya is cold and wet.

One of our main draws to the town was to experience the tea plantation-production experience. We were left disappointed as the Deepavali celebrations on the previous day had lead to the closure of the tea factories. Instead we took a small hike through the tea plantation fields.

DSCF4727

We had hoped to walk a little further until we took shelter form the rain under some concrete. A little boy popped out of nowhere and exclaimed ‘this is my wall!’ before we had a chance to sit down. He then motioned to us to sit, but we knew this would come at a cost so we left him to the wall and walked in the rain again. We then got a quick public bus back to the town.

DSCF4730

Nuwara Eliya works hard to maintain its reputation as ‘Little England’ and the Grand Hotel, which dominates the town does well to assist. At 3:30pm every day they serve afternoon tea with scones and sandwiches served by well-trained waiters and guarded by men in colonial dress. It is hard to look past this as theatre, but it is a genuine show of hospitality. Naturally, we gave it a go (having never actually indulged in afternoon tea in England).

DSCF4733

We walked in the rain for a bit before going back to our drab hotel (electricity was off so candles were out). Afternoon tea meant dinner was late, but dinner was curry so it was worth the wait.

After about 24 hours we were ready to leave Nuwara Eliya. It, like England, may have been pleasant in the sun, but the poor weather had literally dampened our impressions of the place and we weren’t sad to leave it behind.

20171020_111225.jpg

Unfortunately, we were fast approaching our departure from Sri Lanka and we had to bypass Kandy (which I am sure would have been another highlight) to ensure that we were back in Colombo in time for our Saturday flight. For this reason we popped back on a train (not train enthusiasts) for another scenic ride towards Colombo. Note: we left the chill of Nuwara Eliya in trousers and soon regretted it as we got closer to sea level.

A week in Sri Lanka was over. We are leaving with a new affection for the country, and lots of memories to savour.